Setting Up Reader’s/Writer’s Notebooks

I have always loved notebooks. I buy them like the end of printing actual paper notebooks is an inevitable apocalyptic event sure to happen in the near future. I’ve had some of my notebooks for years and haven’t written a thing in them because they are just too beautiful to use! Have you ever felt this way? This isn’t the case however, when it comes to reader’s/writer’s notebooks. I love the beginning of a new school year and the promise of a brand new composition notebook. When I first started with RW notebooks it wasn’t all that clear to me how to set them up and more importantly, how to use them to serve an authentic purpose in my students’ lives. (For more on how to nurture authentic writing about reading check out this blog on Two Writing Teachers. I’ll also be posting more about this in the coming weeks.)

First: A RW Notebook is NOT…

Let’s be clear before we get into setting up a RW notebook and possible sections, about what a RW notebook is and isn’t. I was leading a professional learning session one day and as I normally do, had my RW notebook sitting out on the table where I was presenting. A teacher approached me during the break to share that she had found an amazing resource on TPT for notebooks that turned out to be all she needed for a year of notebook work! She was really excited. I wasn’t. I understand that when something is new and we’re just trying to figure it out, as well as how to implement it, it’s always a huge relief to find a resource that will save us time and mistakes. However, those resources rarely exist. Further more, making mistakes is part of refining our practice. What this teacher had found was a packet of what boiled down to being “cute worksheets” to cut out and glue into a notebook. They were designed with chevron borders, cute fonts, and hip graphics for coloring. This is NOT what I’m talking about when I talk about RW notebooks as an authentic tool for students to capture their thinking and create a record of their reading and writing life across a period of time.

A RW Notebook is: Decorated

Secondary teachers especially, will roll their eyes at me (if not in actuality, I know they’re doing it mentally!), when I recommend they take the time to have students decorate their notebooks. They think that decorating is artsy craftsy, or elementary, and not a good use of their time. They also don’t want to deal with the mess. I get this. Trust me, I do. I was a skeptic before I became such a strong proponent of decorating. Here’s why you should decorate the notebook. When students personalize their notebooks, they own them. They take pride in them and the importance of the notebook to that student has now increased exponentially. When students decorate their notebooks with clippings, photos, and quotes that hold meaning for them, community is built quickly. I used to think decorating should always have to a reflection of reading and writing as a theme. I’ve since changed my thinking. I think it’s more important that students decorate to express their interests and identity. It’s far more important that the student feel pride and ownership of their notebook. And besides, can’t we read and write about anything? As long as it’s appropriate for school, anything goes.

Here’s some tips for minimizing mess:

  • Ask a few of your students to take home some magazines and cut out photos and quotes ahead of time.
  • On decorating day, put out glue sticks and clippings for students to decorate without the mess of cutting!
  • Of course, let students know ahead of time that they will be decorating so they can bring in their own clippings as well.
  • Teacher, Janice Rose, in Sacramento, lets her students create their collage electronically and then print them out as a single word document to be trimmed and glued to the notebook. However you choose to do it, decorate the notebooks.
Jessica Horton, HS ELA teacher is Louisiana, decorated her model notebook.

A RW Notebook is: Sometimes More than One Notebook

If you are going to use more than one notebook, I recommend that you tape or hot glue them together. It’s just too hard for students to keep up with more than one notebook. This year, I’m trying something new by taping THREE notebooks together. I have a reading notebook, a writing notebook, and new this year, a notebook dedicated to word study (spelling), grammar, and vocabulary. I used clear packing tape to tape the covers of the notebook together and then went around the back and front cover of the two outer notebooks to secure the bindings together.

I’m using three notebooks taped together this year, Reading, Writing, and a third for Word Study, Grammar, and Vocabulary.

A RW Notebook is: Divided into Sections

The Reader’s Notebook

Over the years, I have tried many different ways of dividing and sectioning RW notebooks. By trial and error, more error than anything, I’ve landed on just four sections. When there are too many sections, it’s too easy for students to put things in the wrong place which leads to frustration on your part and your students’. There are many different options out there for tabs. I’ve used sticky notes attached with packing tape in the past, but this year I’m trying Post-It brand filing tabs.

Here are my recommended sections from front to back:

  • Books I Want to Read I’ve created this section after reading and agreeing with Donalyn Miller’s advise in her iconic book, The Book Whisperer. Readers should always have a TBR (To be Read), pile. They should have a list of books waiting to be considered as soon as he/she has finished a book. I should confess here that my TBR list will far outlive me! When students give booktalks, I require the class to get out their RW notebook just in case the book ends up being something they want to read. There’s nothing worse than having heard about a book and not being able to remember it. And no, the librarian doesn’t know what book you’re asking about with the blue cover!
Here’a my TBR list in the front of my new RW notebook for the school year.
  • Reading Response This section should make up the bulk of the notebook. I don’t number pages because I think doing so takes away from the authentic nature of the notebook. I just eyeball a section that accounts for about 80% of the pages. In this section, students make entries in response to the texts they are reading together as a class (I call this the anchor or core text), and their independent reading texts. I’ll blog more on strategies for writing in response to reading in the coming weeks. For now, check out this article on the Choice Literacy website for ideas to get your started.
HS ELA Teacher, Amy Heno from San Juan Unified, shared this example of an entry from a students’ notebook.

Value progress and process over perfection! If you place too much emphasis on perfection your notebook work will lose the purpose of being an authentic tool in improving a reader/writer’s literacy.

  • Reading Toolbox In this section, students do glue in some handouts for quick reference. I recommend against handing students a stack of handouts on the first day to trim and glue in. Be selective and intentional about what goes in this section. Model using the tool with students so that they understand it’s value and they will be much more likely to actually use it! An example of what might go in this section is Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s “Tracking Your Thinking” handout.
  • My Reading Life In this final section, students reflect on their life as a reader. They can use Penny Kittle and Teri Lesesne’s idea for creating a reading ladder out of the books they’ve read, reflect on volume read over a quarter, reflect on time spent reading, or even stretching out of their comfort zone as a reader. (I’ll post more about this too in the upcoming weeks.) In the pages from the end of the notebook working backwards, is where students should keep a book log of books read throughout the year. THIS IS NOT the same as a more traditional book log signed by parents! I’ll say that again for those in the back. I’m against having parents sign book logs. Here’s why. Instead, this is an authentic log kept by the reader. I ask students to write the date they finished the book, the title and author, and total pages. We keep track of total pages as part of tracking volume. I’ll post about assessment and volume as well in coming posts.

The Writer’s Notebook

  • Collection This first section is where students collect short snippets of writing that may or may not be developed into longer pieces later on. I model this work, being explicit about writing and thinking in front of my students. Collection is a way to build a bank of writing to be drawn on later and perhaps more importantly, it’s a way to build confidence and fluency in writing. I love Linda Rief’s new book, The Quickwrite Handbook. It’s full of excerpts and short pieces of text with practical strategies for students to use to springboard their short writes. I also like Nancy Atwell’s work with writing territories. Here’s a blog post from Heinemann publishers by Nancy on how to use writing territories.
My writing territories. I modeled writing this in front of students and added to it as they shared their territories. This shows students that writers get their best ideas from their own lives. If you’ve lived, you have ideas for writing.
  • The Next Three Sections in the Writer’s Notebook: Narrative, Expository, and Argument The next three sections should be the bulk of the pages in the writer’s notebook, again about 80% of the total pages. I divide this section into thirds and use the Post-it Note brand file tabs to label because they are moveable should the student need more room in one section. In these sections, students write in the first few stages of the writer’s process in any one of the three domains. Once students move to a formal draft, I recommend they come out of the notebook.
This photo was originally published on the San Marcos Writing Project FB page.
  • The Writer’s Toolbox This section is not unlike the toolbox section in the reader’s notebook. Be strategic and judicious about what you give students for this section. I recommend tools like the They Say, I Say stems for academic writing, graphic organizers, checklists, or word lists. Again, don’t just hand students a packet of handouts to glue into their notebooks, model, model, model before giving them the actual handout for their notebook.

The Third Notebook: Vocabulary, Grammar, and Word Study (Spelling) This is a new notebook for me this year. Teaching each of these elements of literacy is something that should be done explicitly and in its own context as well as in the context of reading and writing. Sprinkling in bits of these elements randomly across a school year will result in students lacking basic literacy skills that will eventually lock them out of succeeding in more challenging classes and life. I recommend several resources for this work, Bringing Words to Life , Mechanically Inclined, and Teaching Phonics and Word Study in the Intermediate Grades are just a few of many available.

Final Note about Notebooks Value progress and process over perfection! If you place too much emphasis on perfection your notebook work will lose the purpose of being an authentic tool in improving a reader/writer’s literacy, and worse, take the joy out of using them. Our thinking about anything is messy, so notebooks should be messy too. Model and encourage students to change their thinking and scratch things out. Expect the quality of entries to improve and grow over time. As you get more comfortable with using a RW notebook, your students will as well and their entries will surpass your original expectations. Come back here later for more ideas on entries, feedback vs. assessment, and trouble shooting challenges.